from Biography of Ash

There, where my body seemed to lay a great distance from me, I put my hand on my leg, on my fingers, and I couldn't tell they were mine. My thighs. My legs. My waist. Everything was dry and withered. It was the dryness that scared me. Every time I placed my hand on a part of my body, it was as if I had placed it on a piece of damp wood. By the third day after I had been blindfolded, it seemed to me that I was one of the walking dead. I began to notice that my body was becoming frighteningly emaciated. I continued to deteriorate as a result of the torture, and was constantly dizzy. As soon as I woke up and touched my body, I felt like collapsing again.

I disappeared into slumber and woke up to the sound of scratching underneath my bed of cardboard. The scratching continued, and that's what annoyed me. The sound began to move from under this bed, directly to my ear. I jumped up violently, and with considerable effort. I pulled the cardboard up from where it lay and shook it a little, hoping that the source of the scratching sound would fall from one of its folds. I got down on the floor to look at some of the holes in the walls. In the right hand corner, I discovered a burrow. I threw myself violently to the opposite corner. There was a tail curling up into it as fast as a flash of lightning. I held my breath. The tail turned over and the head appeared. It was a mouse! With what remained of my strength, I rushed to the door and proceeded to bang on it. I was screaming at the top of my lungs when the Hadj entered my cell with keys in hand. I didn't know what he was expecting of me. Nor did I know what I was expecting of myself after all of this screaming. Finally, I surprised him with a request to use the toilet.

Up until the moment he inserted the key into the lock of my cell, I wasn't sure that I was going to ask him for anything except to get rid of the mouse and to fill the hole with cement. I don't know what compelled me to ask to go to the toilet.

"You people only take pleasure in going to the toilet. If you were to exchange your shit for words, it would be better for you and us both, for God's sake!"

This is what the Hadj said as he flung open the door of my cell in front of me. Had I revealed the truth, I would have handed them a point of weakness on a golden platter. The distance between my cell and the toilet was quite long, and it was necessary to walk between two facing rows of cells. The Hadj's cane urged me along quickly. I pushed the door open and went in. I opened my fly and urinated with some difficulty, as there was nothing there, but I wanted only to prolong my time there so that I wouldn't have to return to the cell. Perhaps if I took my time, the mouse would leave and go someplace else. The problem with the hole was that there was the possibility that another could appear at any time. Dear Lord! I've got to get a hold of myself. I'll try. I'll try. The Hadj knocked twice and yelled:

"Hurry up. Are you constipated?!"

I came out clearing my throat, my hand on my fly. My steps were heavy when the Hadj pushed me forcefully back into my cell. He locked the door and left, while I remained standing on my tiptoes, my back pressed up against the door. I fixed my gaze on the opposite corner, on the mousehole where that little silvery-gray creature had forced me to play blind man's bluff again after all these years.

The other kids used to insist that I join them and when my turn came and I closed my eyes, they would take the opportunity to grab hold of any small soft piece of cloth, a piece of wool, or some other piece of material, tie it up in a knot and throw it at my face.

"Moulin, look out, a mouse, a mouse!" They would jump around and run away while I remained, dancing in fear. I would scream with all my strength. I would cry, and when I got wise to the fake "mouse" that they threw at me, I would tell them to get lost, filling my hands with rocks, and the alley with screams. It wouldn't stop until Youssef convinced me to fall into the trap yet again, whenever my turn came up in the game of blind man's bluff.

My God, the mouse is here after all this time. I'll play the game again here and now, even though this is no place for games. I got tired of standing; there was no point. I moved the cardboard a little in the direction of the door in order to sleep as far as possible from the mouse hole. However, I feared that this would raise the Hadj's suspicions so I pushed it into the middle of the cell and lay down. I stretched out a little, but I couldn't force myself to forget about the little silvery-gray mouse. I began to convince myself that he could do me no harm, comparing his size to mine. What could he do to me compared to what the agents do? Could I handle all of that, yet kneel down before this silvery-gray mouse? No, no way. I tried to cover my eyes, but it was in vain that I tried to distance myself from him.

Three days of rolling right and left in a fitful sleep out of which the slightest scratching would wake me-the jangling of keys; one of the comrades heading to the toilet; another one crying out because of his wounds. I was like a clock, wound up by the slightest noise. The room became even gloomier. I kept my eyes open until they bulged. Perhaps I would catch a glimpse of him. He was dark gray when I saw him in the daytime. Perhaps he left and another, or others, came in his place. Who knows? I never knew that there was something called "morning" in here. However, the presence of this silvery-gray mouse forced me to make it out, or at least to imagine I had. It was only then, in the morning, that it was possible to see the hole, and to distinguish between the one that went in, and the one who came out.

I don't know how sleep overtook me, but one morning I woke up with something running over my outstretched hand, causing me to renew my screams as he entered his hole. The Hadj opened the door accompanied by two nervous-looking agents who dragged me to the "hospitality" session. I didn't ask for the toilet this time.

I didn't think about the torture rituals, for our detainment had lasted more than two years moving between secret prison and garde à vue detention. The judicial police accompanied us, even to the district attorney and the investigating judge. They would use our bodies as ashtrays, and as practice dummies for their cravaches. I learned from the prison doctor afterward that with us nine, he could not figure out why our wounds kept appearing anew despite our transfer to this location more than three months ago, whereas the wounds and scars on the rest of the comrades had stopped bleeding and appeared, relatively speaking, to be healing.

While the question of my position on the inclusion of the Kida region in our nation was drawing its bloody lines on my body, and placing electrical charges and cigarette burns all over me and on my genitals, I remained obsessed with that mouse. Did he enter his hole? Did he leave it? For the first time, I was distracted from the torture with other things. My responses to their questions remained limited.

"Is your secret organization in favor of the annexation of Kida or not?"

"We're still organizing ourselves internally. Discussions among us only concern general principles and planning. This issue has not been put forth yet."

"Son of a bitch! And eradicating illiteracy and meeting with workers and posters and announcements. . . You call these things 'organizing principles' and 'structural planning?!' Tell it to someone who cares and shut up!"

They cut me off with a strong slap to the face. I felt heat where a rivulet of blood flowed from my nose (I often had nosebleeds during torture sessions). I heard the cravache smack the ground all of a sudden.

"Take this dog out of here at once!"

A unit of agents came out and the Hadj rushed me to my cell, holding onto my arms and dragging my legs along the ground. I was prepared to prolong my time anywhere-in the toilet with its awful smell, in the torture room with its gloomy colors and whips, in this cement hallway. The important thing was to not go back to the cell, where waiting for me were that hole, fear . . . and the mouse.

The fear that lurked, waiting for me when I entered the cell, was not the same as when I entered the torture room. A shivering overtook my entire body as I threw myself inside. Lmima, come. Come look at your son now.

The Hadj locked the door behind me and I stood there whimpering in a strangled voice. All this torture and it's only this mouse that appears to me strong as an elephant. I imagined that if they knew of my fear of the mouse, and my complete collapse in front of it, they would organize a celebration for intelligence units worldwide. The upper echelons of these organizations would review their programs, and they would give supplementary lessons to their units aimed at seeking the weak spots of a detainee-just as we were able to drive Haydaoui the carpenter out of his mind when we were little, with the single word "honey," which we would lob at him while running away; or as we used to be able to do to Abdelghani ibn Elhai who would be reduced to hysterical laughter when we tickled him on his sides, or under the armpits. As for me, it was enough for them to throw me a mouse.

I mulled over these fears, and noticed that I was still standing. I stretched out on the floor a little, and sat with my legs out in front of me. I put my hand on the ground and leaned my head back, placing it on the wall. No sooner had I placed myself in such a position that I felt a movement. I jumped up immediately and fixed my gaze upon the hole with my eyes shooting out like darts. I crouched down and remained like a shepherd fearful of a wolf getting into his sheep's enclosure. Then he appeared, but I had neither the power nor the strength to face him. Even if I did possess such courage, I was barefoot. I didn't have a shoe to stomp on him with. I remained thus, in a crouching position. He came out and began to poke around his hole. He wasn't silver-gray as I had seen him the first time, and as I had known him. I held my breath lest the slightest movement turn him back to his silver-gray color, which would definitely bring him toward me. He continued to walk to the center of the cell which I had for so long considered so small. But now he made me look at it in terms of corners, a middle, and sides. He got to the center and stopped, pausing, while I remained holding my breath. He made himself into a ball in his place, tracing a circle on the floor and sitting in the middle of it as if performing some sort of yoga movements. I swallowed my breath once again, nearly bursting with laughter. Would Youssef ever believe that I had sat face to face with a mouse? He moved a little, then returned to where he was without disturbing me at all. Oh God, what is it he has discovered? "Come here, come here. Is it possible for you to leave me alone? Or is it possible that we become friends?"

I spoke to him in a voice that was barely audible. I told him the reason for my discomfort, rather, my fear of him came from the time when he bit the hand of my father, the neighborhood holy man, the fqih. My father had put his hand inside the hole next to the bench where he hid his Quran (I was studying with him-he had sat me in the first row), and when he took his hand out of the hole blood flowed from his finger, and he threw the Quran away. The other kids screamed out of pain for their fqih, my father. The grocer, Bajloul, came and killed the mouse. When he saw the frightening pallor that my father had taken on, he informed us that it was not a normal mouse, that it was poisoned. This was confirmed with a visit to the neighborhood doctor. "You see, I had to hate you. It was the first time my father's horse had ever stumbled. A horse armored in gold. Despite lessons in natural sciences that followed confirming that poison is not found in all mice, time did what it did. This contract with all mice, or should I say against them, was enough to confuse me. Now you appear nice enough, as if you are cast from another mold entirely. Perhaps the mice of the fifties are different from those of the seventies. Twenty years or more is surely enough to change a person, to make him obedient, even to melt and re-form him entirely. Why not the same with a mouse?"

I glanced at him again. He couldn't have weighed more than the smallest starling. He was a faded gray, like dirt. His eyes like grains of salt, their color impossible to determine. His mouth and his nose two dots at the end of a line.

Only now will we reconcile. Perhaps we'll even become friends. He moved in place, without leaving his spot. No! It's not just a matter of getting to know one another and reconciling. I'm going to name you. I'll find a name for you. True, we have reconciled, but I don't think the matter of getting to know one another will be completed in a day, at least not on my end. I know your kind. If it weren't for the other animals, you wouldn't be here living and breathing. It was only when the boat filled with dung that everyone was disgusted and complained about it to Noah. So he squeezed the elephant's tail and a male and female pig fell from it, and they proceeded to eat all of the manure that had gathered in the ark. When the pig sneezed, you two-the male and the female mouse-came out. It follows, then, that were it not for the pig's sneeze, you wouldn't exist. I'll find a name for you so that anytime I say it you'll know I mean you. But what shall I name you? What shall I name you after all this hubbub, and after we have given in to one another, or at least I have given in to you?

I've got it! I'll name you Salman Hissa, and why not?!

Thus began my relationship with Salman, and thus did it develop in unexpected ways.

After the beginning of the trial, they put us in an old wing that had been designated by the colonial administrators for prisoners associated with the nationalist movement. That day, I waited for Salman to emerge, after things had returned to normal. No one expected that Salman Hissa would jump to the top of the list of detainees, and that he would be the cause of the re-interrogation of all the comrades in order to find out who he was. It was his name I yelled out when the interrogators colored my flesh with their handiwork. My torture continued for many more days. Perhaps Salman felt the duration of my absence and left, never to return. I yelled his name with no rhyme or reason. I didn't think about the lines of blood on my body when the interrogators stopped their whipping, and one of them yelled in my face:

"That's what you said yesterday! Who is this Salman? Is he the head of the organization? Is he the one who formulated the special document saying that Kida shouldn't be annexed by us? Tell us, who is Salman?!"

They started to hit my ribs again. I felt a fire consuming my joints, followed by an icy coldness. I repeated the full name:

"Salman Hissa."

They took me back to my cell where Salman was sitting in the middle of the floor as if nothing had happened. I saw him and I smiled. All units would begin looking for Salman, and there he was, sitting with me in my cell. It took no more than a day and a half for their special intelligence apparatuses to verify that this name could not be located on any map in the country, among the living or the dead. It had never occurred to me before that mice were responsible for meticulously dividing up the map, unless it was of a species specific to colonization. They took me and read more than twenty names that resembled the name of Salman Hissa: Ahmad Salman. Ashour Salman. Salman Aicha . . . And I would assure them that I knew him by one name only-Salman Hissa.

"Have you met him?"

"Yes! But no more than four times."

They wanted a description of him so I gave them Salman's precise features: small, slight, thin. Coloring like dirt. Narrow eyes. With a mouth and nose smaller than a grain of wheat.

"Did he wear glasses?"

"I don't know. Whenever I met him, he wasn't wearing them. Maybe he wore them at other times."

"Did he visit you alone, or was someone with him?"

"The four times we met, there was a woman with him."

"Same woman?"

"No."

Salman seemed vague and general. That's all they extracted. They closed the file on me in order to open an investigation on the comrade who went by the activist name of Salman Hissa.

When they began to group us together and put us in one wing, we were heartened by the beginning of the trial, but it was a sad day due to my separation from Salman. He went into his hole, but did not emerge again. I dragged my legs slowly toward the open door of the cell after exposing them to the wind and screaming out. I looked back at it like a lover who sets a meeting with his beloved in a specific place, only to find the morality police have come to make sure that he knows that standing in this place is forbidden. I kept turning back in the direction of the hole with the distant hope that perhaps he would appear again.

From Sirat al-ramad: riwaya [Biography of Ash: a novel]. Beirut and Casablanca: Afriqiyya al-sharq, 2000. Copyright 2000 by Khadija Marouazi. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2007 by Alexander Elison. All rights reserved.